George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” is a witty, surprising, and smart poem, which teaches a profound theological truth: Created with perfect blessings, it is man’s foolishness and fall that is to blame for his ending up poor and thin.
I was college student afflicted with a serious case of Anglophilia when I discovered George Herbert and his poetry. The discovery made my affliction worse. When I found that he forsook the allure of Cambridge and a court appointment and went to be the Rector of the hamlet of Bemerton in Wiltshire, my attraction to the man was complete. A few years later I would go on my own journey to become an Anglican country parson. The dream came true, and when I finally inhabited my own rural retreat on the Isle of Wight I even remembered to write some poems.
The attractive George Herbert was born into an artistic, religious, and wealthy family. He enrolled as a student of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1609 and shone in languages, rhetoric and music. Although he intended to take holy orders, his brilliance attracted men in high places. As the University’s Public Orator, Herbert drew the attention of King James I. He left Cambridge to serve in the government and as a member of parliament, but on the king’s death he turned away from worldly affairs, was ordained, and retired to serve humbly in his country parish. The poet Henry Vaughan called him “a most glorious saint and seer.” Herbert died of consumption just thirty-nine years of age. When you visit the cathedral city of Salisbury, take a short detour to visit Herbert’s grave in Bemerton Church.
Like the other metaphysical poets, Herbert’s verse is full of sparkling wordplay, a great musical sense, and clever conceits taken from the natural and ecclesiastical world. His witty, surprising, and smart poem Easter Wings is a treasure of English poetry, and a fitting inspiration on Easter week.
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
The charming success of the poem is linked with Herbert’s own suffering. As a country priest he was “most poor” and his poverty, sickly nature, and consumption would certainly have rendered him “most thinne.”
Within his personal witness to Easter, the country parson teaches a profound theological truth: Created with perfect blessings, it is man’s foolishness and fall that is to blame for his ending up poor and thin.
Paradoxically (O felix culpa), it is this very fall and affliction that “furthers flight” and lifts us up to share the Easter victory. The poem’s typographically witty wordplay is unique, and the structure of the poem echoes the theological truths it teaches perfectly. The sin and affliction narrow down the poem, then at the poorest and thinnest point the grace of God reaches down and restores the poet’s flight so that he wears the white wings of Easter.
Which brings us to Herbert’s brother, poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. Three hundred years later this brilliant Oxford man, also from a wealthy, religious, and artistic family, decides to forsake his world and (in his case) to convert to the Catholic faith. His poetry is also innovative, risky, clever, and fresh. He also dies young—just forty-five years of age.
Like Herbert, Hopkins deals with the surge of resurrection after the fall. However, his scope is cosmic more than personal. In God’s Grandeur, it is the whole of nature that groans for redemption. Industrial Britain has seared with trade and smeared with toil the natural world. Mankind under the curse has grown poor and thin.
But as Herbert’s poem surges, so surges Hopkins’ because nature is never spent, and like his metaphysical friend, Hopkins’ heart is lifted in flight bearing “Ah, bright wings!”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
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